In July 2007, I founded a company called EveryBlock. August 31 will be my last day at the company.
I've worked on this for five years, three of those after selling it to msnbc.com, and I've developed an uncontrollable itch to do something new.
There was no single event, person or experience that swayed my decision -- just a gradual realization that I've done what I wanted to do with EveryBlock and am hungry for the next thing. I've really enjoyed building the site, collaborating with talented people and breaking ground in several areas, from open data to mapping to local news -- but I've realized lately that I don't have the passion for it that I once did.
As I leave EveryBlock, the product and team are in the best shape ever. I wouldn't have been comfortable leaving a year, or even six months, ago, but our president, Brian Addison, has got things firmly under control, and the product/community/bizdev teams are more effective than they've ever been. We've got huge traction in large parts of Chicago (where, in a number of neighborhoods, more than 10,000 residents each are signed up for the service!), and other cities are more modest but promising. I'll continue to be a loyal user, and I look forward to seeing what the team does next.
Over the past three years (EveryBlock's post-acquisition period), msnbc.com has been a fantastic company to work for. With EveryBlock, it's managed to do something very rare: not only keeping it alive post-acquisition (which the acquired company cannot take for granted), but achieving the delicate balance of providing guidance/resources and keeping their hands off. Most acquisitions fail, and Charlie Tillinghast and the msnbc.com folks have bent over backwards to avoid that with us. I can't think of a better place for us to have ended up than msnbc.com.
(An important, related aside: Just about a month ago, NBC News acquired msnbc.com. I want to explicitly point out that the timing of my departure has nothing to do with that. I'd actually come to my decision before I had any idea the NBC News thing was going to happen; that's just the way the timing worked out. I urge all journalism-industry armchair pundits not to jump to conclusions or generate artificial conflict.)
Going further back, I want to thank the Knight Foundation for the $1.1 million grant to start EveryBlock back in 2007. The foundation set three concrete goals for me: build EveryBlock, launch it in 10 cities and open-source the code. More broadly, the context around the grant was to test the concept of geographic news feeds, asking the question, "What interesting things happen when we aggregate news and data at the level of city block?"
I believe it was a tremendous success. Here's some of what we accomplished in five years:
- We helped jumpstart the open-data movement. In 2007, we were basically the first consumer-focused entity with a full-time person (Dan O'Neil) devoted to convincing city governments to open their data feeds. At the time, city employees responded to us as if we were crazy. "You want WHAT? A daily feed of every crime? How about I give you these paper printouts once a month?" We did a ton of informal lobbying, spoke at relevant conferences and (most importantly) built a product based on civic data that showed municipalities that there was consumer-level demand for their stuff. Eventually, open data became trendy among cities, and these days it seems like every major city has a data portal (e.g., Chicago, San Francisco). And no less than John Tolva, CTO of the City of Chicago, has credited us with helping inspire the city's (awesome) open-data policy.
- We helped jumpstart the movement toward custom maps. In 2008, Web mapping equalled Google Maps. Everybody used the Google Maps API, and few mainstream sites had the vision and skills to make their own maps -- their own color schemes, fonts, road sizes, etc. We believed we could do better, and Paul Smith and Wilson Miner figured out how to do it -- no easy task, given the horrendous documentation of the time. Paul's article for A List Apart was influential, I gave a keynote advocating custom maps at an early Where 2.0 conference, and these days sites such as Apple and Foursquare have started making their own maps.
- Our open-source code made an indirect but strong impact. In 2009, at the end of our grant period, we released the EveryBlock source code. Very few people have used it to create EveryBlock-ish sites for their own cities, but indirectly, a lot of prominent people derived a ton of value from the code, learned from it, and went on to create amazing things. I've gotten dozens of emails and in-person "thank yous" from people who say the EveryBlock code taught them how to do geographic stuff in their Web apps. Kevin Systrom, CEO of Django-powered Instagram, emailed me in 2011, saying "I learned most of what I know about Django by reading the EveryBlock source code."
- We've made a difference in neighborhoods in our 16 cities. Since we changed focus to neighborhood discussion in March 2011, EveryBlock users have used our service to accomplish amazing things in their neighborhoods: starting farmers markets, catching flashers, raising money for their community, finding/reporting lost pets (way too many cases to link to...) and generally getting to know their neighbors and forging community bonds. These days, something like this happens on the site nearly every day -- which casual onlookers might not notice because of our long-tail, neighborhood-specific focus. EveryBlock has become a force for good, and it's got a bright future.
Beyond those successes, I thank the Knight Foundation for bringing out the startup guy in me. Before EveryBlock, I had very "safe" jobs, working as a Web developer at newspapers, with steady income. The Knight grant gave me a chance to take a huge risk while maintaining a financial safety net. It was a great gateway into the startup world, and now, of course, I'm eager to do it again!
And that leads me to the big question: What's next? Honestly, I don't know. I have a pile of side-project ideas and a bunch of started-yet-unfinished ones lying around -- from small stuff on the scale of the YouTube Insult Generator to bigger things. If you've got ideas, get in touch. I do know two things: I'm staying in Chicago, and I'm ready, once more, to make something awesome.